There have been quite a few search and rescue operations at the Refuge lately. Hot weather, unprepared hikers, and rugged terrain can be a recipe for disaster. A couple weeks ago, rescuers had to spend the night on Mt. Scott with a woman who had fallen just before dark. After that incident, Randy H. asked us to let him know when non-rescue rescues occur. A non-rescue rescue happens when hikers help other hikers out of situations that could have resulted in a search and rescue if we hadn’t helped. Examples are having extra water to hand out along the trail, getting lost hikers back on track, sharing sunscreen, bug spray, and snacks, cautioning hikers as they prepare to hike about what they will need. On past hikes, Michelle and I have helped with directions, shared sunscreen, cautioned hikers to have plenty of water, and brought a family back to the safety of their car after they encountered a herd of buffalo. Today would prove to be our biggest non-rescue rescue yet.
When we left the yoga studio yesterday, we decided that we would head out at 7 am this morning. This was the first decision that would allow us to execute a non-rescue rescue. It was my turn to drive, which proved to be the second good decision. I have an SUV and Michelle has a sporty car. We hadn’t decided where to hike, so I texted Michelle last night and gave her 5 choices: Little Baldy, Jed Johnson, Elk/Longhorn, Post Oak Falls, or Forty Foot Hole. She chose Elk and Longhorn Trails because we hadn’t hiked them in a while. The stars were starting to align with that choice, although we didn’t yet know it.
As agreed, I picked her up at 7 am and we headed toward the Cache entrance. Traveling through the Refuge, we saw a couple of lone buffalo and a group of turkeys. As we turned onto Indiahoma Road, I began to wonder to myself what my blog post would be about. We planned to finish hiking early and then volunteer at the visitor center for a few hours, so I figured that something would happen there that would inspire me. I could not have been more wrong!
We turned down the road leading to the French Lake parking lot and rounded a curve. I was getting ready to point out to Michelle the dirt boat ramp where I had spotted a deer last week when we noticed two teenage girls standing near the boat ramp. One of them was jumping up and down, and waving her arms at us. My first thought was what in hell were these girls doing out here? We couldn’t see any cars and that area is too far to walk from Refuge headquarters or the visitor center. I stopped and asked what was wrong. The young lady was clearly distraught and explained that her father’s truck was partially stuck in the lake. She asked if we could help. I know that the look on my face must have been something akin to “I don’t know how we can help”. I tend to wear my emotions on my face (I could never play poker), which is not always a good thing. I warned her that my SUV isn’t four-wheel drive, but said we would help in any way possible.
As we neared the boat ramp, I could see her dad and the truck. The back wheels were just far enough back into the lake that he was unable to get traction. He was soaked and dirty as he had been trying to figure out a way to get the truck out. We spoke briefly and I warned him as well that I don’t have four-wheel drive. My concern was that the boat ramp is very narrow and made of dirt and rock. There are two ruts in the ramp and it was wet from last night’s rain. Not a great mix. In addition, it’s not like I go around pulling people out of lakes every day. Heck, I’ve never even pulled someone out of a ditch! But I needed to at least try. Girl power! Fist bump!!
While dad connected a rope between the two vehicles, we started to ascertain part of the story. He had backed down the boat ramp and dropped off his kayak because he was going to go fishing while his daughter and her friend went hiking. His daughter, Kaylie was supposed to drive the truck down to the parking lot. Kaylie has only recently gotten her driver’s license and is used to driving a stick shift. Dad’s truck is an automatic. Are you starting to see where this is going? Kaylie didn’t realize she was in reverse and started to give the truck gas. Dad, who was later identified as Eric, thought the truck was simply rolling backward and instructed Kaylie to hit the gas, which she did, putting the back tires into French Lake, landing partially on top of the kayak, and nearly hitting her father in the process! What the *@(& was uttered a couple of times. It was clear that she was upset, so Michelle got out to try to calm her. I stayed in the car with my foot firmly on the brake. I was afraid to even put it into park as I sat on that slippery slope. Don’t ask the rationale behind that. There was none. I was simply trying not to freak out at what I needed to do.
With the rope connected and Eric behind the wheel of the truck, I started to pull forward as gently as possible. I’ll admit I didn’t do a great job, but the rope was also not in the best shape and broke almost instantly. You could almost feel the unasked question. What now? Then I remembered that I had a climbing rope in the back of my car. Several months ago, Michelle and I had hiked to the Forty Foot Hole after a really good rain and the creek was running high. When I told Ken about it, he gave me the rope and told me to put it in my pack. Why? So I can execute a swift-water rescue? To partially appease him, I had kept the rope in the back of my car. I called out to Michelle and reminded her that it was there. Back in business!
By this time, another gentleman had pulled up and everybody went to work getting the rope secured between the two vehicles. I think they wrapped it around about four times. All the while, my foot was still firmly on the brake and my eye was nervously watching the temperature gauge, hoping that my car wouldn’t overheat. I was also watching the huge bee that kept flirting with the open passenger window. I was sitting between two button bushes, which are always attractive to butterflies, bees, and dragonflies. I didn’t want to put the window up because I needed to hear what was going on behind me, but I also didn’t want a bee flying into my car. I’m highly allergic and I knew that his presence would cause me to freak out, resulting in my foot releasing the brake, my car rolling backward, taking out Eric’s truck and all five people behind me. Do you see what goes through my mind when I’m left to my own devices?? It’s truly frightening the scenarios I can create. Knowing me as well as she does, Michelle sensed that I was very nervous about the entire endeavor and asked if I wanted one of the guys to drive my car. No, I’m going to do this!
After what seemed like a lifetime, Eric said he was ready to go. Michelle, Kaylie, and her friend Chiara moved to the road. The other gentleman who had stopped said I only needed to pull Eric out about 10 feet. Might as well have been 10 miles! I started my deep yoga breath, put my Pathfinder into drive, and started to give it gas. We jerked at first, but I kept going nice and steady. And I did it!! Eric’s truck was out of the water, and we were good to go. It took a few minutes to untie the rope and remove it from both vehicles. All the while, my foot was still on the brake. My leg was seriously tired by now! Michelle offered to take the girls hiking with us, while Eric fished. We exchanged phone numbers, which I guess gave us legitimacy. The girls and Michelle piled into my vehicle and I proceeded the rest of the way up the boat ramp. I did spin out some gravel just before reaching the road and I gave a silent thanks to a higher power for the fact that I hadn’t needed to pull Eric further. I’m not sure we would have made it.
Eric parked the truck, since I’m not sure either he or Kaylie were ready for her to get behind the wheel again so quickly. He headed back to the boat ramp and we geared up for the trail. We made sure the girls had plenty of water and bug spray, and then we headed down Elk Trail. As we entered the first clearing, we waved to Eric and asked if the kayak was okay. He replied that it wasn’t leaking, which was good because I didn’t want to have to rescue him from the lake!
We hiked on, looking at turtles, dragonflies, and butterflies. There was a lone goose on top of French Lake Dam, but no other wildlife. We inspected the fish ladder since Kaylie and Chiara had never heard of one. Bill had told us that the trail was really overgrown and he was not kidding. Michelle remarked that they need to do another controlled burn in that area. I could not agree more. My hiking boots are still soaked from walking through the wet weeds. We chatted back and forth with the girls, enjoying our morning and getting to know each other. Kaylie and her parents live in a small town about an hour away, so they had gotten up at 4 am to come to the Refuge. Chiara is from Germany and was their foreign exchange student last year. Kaylie will be a junior in high school this year, and Chiara will be a senior.
Halfway down Longhorn Trail, we reached a high place in the trail and both girls received a text from Kaylie’s mother. Kaylie had apparently managed to reach her after the truck got stuck, but then had lost signal. Since she now had two bars, she called her mom and put her on speaker phone. The conversation went something like this:
Mom: Did the sheriff come?
Kaylie: Sheriff? I don’t think so.
Mom: Did you get the truck out?
Kaylie. Yes. Some nice people came and helped us out. Dad is fishing and we are hiking with the people who helped us.
You could almost hear the wheels in her mom’s mind turning. I imagine she was thinking that her two girls could be with homicidal maniacs and that if anything happened to them, Eric was going to be dead meat. Michelle to the rescue as she immediately yelled out “hi mom!”, and I did the same. Mom may have relaxed a little at that point because she knew that the girls were with two women, but of course, we could still be homicidal maniacs.
Mom (very cautiously): Did you just start hiking?
Me: No, we’re almost finished.
Mom (even more cautiously): Can you get back to your dad okay?
Me: Don’t worry. We’ll make sure they get back to him.
I really felt bad for her because I know I would be worried if I had a child who was with strangers on a hike. I can only imagine what the conversations were like when they arrived home. While they finished the conversation, I took a picture looking back to French Lake.
We finished the hike and crossed the bridge back to the parking lot. Bill’s truck was there, so we knew that he, Dolores, and Maggie were somewhere on the trail. A few minutes later, Eric came strolling down the road. We asked how fishing was and he replied that it was the best time he had ever had fishing when he didn’t catch anything. Truthfully, he was probably just grateful to be alive! We all talked a bit more and then posed for pictures. We had to document the occasion for proof that it happened. Kaylie would like to forget it happened, but I suspect this story will be told for many, many years to come.
They headed back to the boat ramp to pick up the kayak. It was dented in the front, but still in good shape. As we drove past, I thought about waiting to make sure they came out safely, but I figured they would be okay since Eric was driving. We opened the snack that smiles back and headed for the visitor center. We had a story to tell Randy!!
When we entered the visitor center, both Randy and Donna were talking to visitors. Randy immediately yelled out something about us being there and I informed him that we had a story of a non-rescue rescue. I could almost see the excitement. Donna finished her conversation first and I presented her with a gift: an electric fly zapper. The flies can be horrible and we have several of these at home and our office. They give quite a satisfying sizzle and pop once their target has made contact! Donna was very pleased and spent the next 1/2 hour looking for a fly to try it on. I regaled her with the story of the non-rescue rescue, proudly reporting our success. Then we visited briefly with Sierra, who seemed shocked by our morning. Hey, this is us, I reminded her. Anything can happen.
We took a quick bathroom break and when we emerged, Eric, Kaylie, and Chiara were coming through the doors. Perfect! We quickly introduced them to Donna and Randy, and then explained to Randy that Chiara is from Germany. His new best friend! I took a picture of them. Then Randy took a picture of the five of us. Eric bought a new shirt since his existing shirt was pretty dirty. Michelle also bought the newest shirt, so now I am about 5 t-shirts behind in my collection. Happily for me, the 2018 calendars are out and two of my photographs are in there, so Michelle bought one for each of us. Thanks BYF! In case anyone cares, my photographs are April and August. Bill has two in the calendar as well.
Back to the front desk and I was just about to ask Donna what needed to be done, but Kaylie asked Michelle if we wanted to go to lunch with them. Sure, that would be great! Randy said we had done our part for the day, so we headed out. As if Kaylie’s day wasn’t bad enough, she broke her dad’s coffee mug (which he has apparently had for years) while getting back into the truck. This kid just could not catch a break! They followed us to Ann’s Country Kitchen where the food is great, but the portions are enormous, so bring your appetite! We had a really nice lunch getting to know each other even more. More of the story was filled in, and we ribbed Kaylie good-naturedly. Hopefully, they will be back in the Fall and we will take them to Crab Eyes. No lakes there, so we should be in good shape!
In the few years we have been hiking, we have quickly learned that serious, responsible hikers look out for other hikers. We love hiking in the WMWR and we are willing to help anyone who needs assistance (unless you’re a strange man walking down the road with a child’s backpack and I’m by myself, but that’s a different story). Everything aligned properly today to put us in the right place at the right time. Truthfully, Bill wasn’t far behind us and I know he would have helped them. But I was glad we could help because we got to meet some really nice people and I hope we get to see them again in the future. When we were at lunch, Eric said this would be a long blog post so I had better start early. He was not kidding! But the story of the non-rescue rescue had to be told. The kayak has a dent, Eric has a scratch on the back of his leg, Kaylie was a little shaken. But all-in-all, it could have been so much worse. Somebody was watching over all of us today.
Remember to follow you own path and be willing to lend a helping hand when your path crosses someone else’s path. You might be pleasantly surprised at the really nice people you will meet. Eric, Kaylie, and Chiara: any time you want to hike, give us a call! And next time, bring mom so she can see that we aren’t homicidal maniacs (although we are a little crazy). See you on the trail!!